In 1967, there were 160 fatal accidents on New Hampshire highways and the Department of Transportation estimated that more than half of these crashes were alcohol-related. Some New Hampshire legislators, as well as the Milford Cabinet editorial page, had a suggestion – implement an implied consent law which would guarantee that, if asked by law enforcement, every driver would either submit to a blood test or forfeit their license. It was an attempt to solve a problem that daunted police in those years — how to prove that someone was driving drunk.
Of course, driving under the influence was nothing new around town. In 1902, the Milford Cabinet reported that “a drunken driver” named Edward O’Brien circled the Oval several times and was a “menace to life, limb and property.” Of course Mr. O’Brien was “driving” a team of horses, not an automobile. Apparently, he abused “both the horses and the English language” before being run down by the police and put behind bars. As the horseless carriage became ubiquitous on the roads, cars and alcohol quickly proved a deadly combination. As the Cabinet put it in 1938, “Each year cars are made faster and become property of drivers who couldn’t be trusted to operate a bicycle safely. There are several thousand graves in this country that constitute mute testimony to our past laxity in controlling the number of accidents in which John Barleycorn is a factor.”
Indeed, reports of alcohol-related “smashes” (as they were usually called) on Milford roads were prevalent throughout the first half of the 20th Century. A small sample: A 1927 Cabinet article reported that Milford resident Albert Lizotte was fined $100 when he drunkenly crashed a bit above his station — hitting the car of Dr. Andrew MacAusland of Boston, whose chauffeur was driving him to Keene to perform an important operation. No one was hurt but both cars were badly wrecked. In 1936, hunter Ben Crosby crashed his car into a stone wall after admittedly taking “several drinks of whiskey.” He staggered into Milford both uninjured and unable to pay the $50 fine levied by Judge Harold Cheever and wound up in a jail cell for 60 days. And on Memorial Day weekend 1957, the Milford Cabinet certainly was not telling anyone anything new with the front-page headline: “Swimming, Beer and Cars Are Bad Combination, Police Find.” Apparently, during a quarry party in which liquor was abundant, a 15-year-old under the influence took the police on a four-mile “wild chase” around the Melendy/Osgood Road area.
But despite the frequency of such incidents, police found drunk drivers extremely difficult to prosecute. Although as early as the 1930s, a sentence required suspension of the drunk driver’s license for one year for the first offense and permanently for a second, actual convictions were difficult to obtain. Usually, it was the word of the cop against the word of the motorist and as the Cabinet put it: “The problem is to prove guilt. Bloodshot eyes? Incoherent Speech? The opinion of the officer? These things do not hold up in court.” The case of one Aurelio Trevasani in a 1955 Milford court illustrated the point. Having crashed his car at the Witch’s Spring Bridge in Hollis, Trevasani claimed that his erratic driving was due not to alcohol but to his efforts to avoid a cat crossing the road. Meanwhile, as friends attested that he had only two or three beers, his attorney reasoned that since Trevasani had grown up in Italy, “two or three glasses had less effect on him than on other people.”
Despite the passage, reversal, and re-passage of the implied consent law in New Hampshire, it was not until the 1980s that police began to get drunk driving under control. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and other watchdog groups pressured states to implement laws to give police more tools – such as the breathalyzer – to combat drunk driving, as well as stiffer sentences for judges to hand out. These days you are risking not just bodily harm but your future prospects if you head out onto a New Hampshire road with old John Barleycorn.
Policeman Mark Schultz with the breathalyzer unit.